‘Death waves us good morning through the windows’: Covering Syria five years on

Asma al-Assad’s right hand was soft and sweaty when I shook it five years ago. “It has been an interesting month,” the beautiful, British-born first lady of Syria told me. She was alluding to the mass protests that had rocked the region and brought down sclerotic regimes in Tunisia and Egypt. In February 2011, smack dab in the middle of unprecedented revolts against those old orders, Vogue published a glossy Valentine to the First Lady. The magazine called her a “Rose of the Desert” and described her household as “wildly democratic.”

But when it came to talk of the region-wide, pro-democracy protests threatening to upend the same systems her husband’s family had solidified for decades (often with brute, lethal force), she refused to elaborate. She diplomatically ended our conversation with some pleasantries (“Enjoy the remainder of your time in Syria”) and a firm handshake (very soft, very sweaty). Then the former banker glided across a bustling, pastry-lined conference room at the swanky Four Seasons Hotel in Damascus. 

Hundreds of us – journalists, civil society leaders, businessmen, and thinkers from across the region – gathered there for an annual Harvard Arab Alumni Association conference under her patronage. She was introduced on stage as a force that has “unleashed civil society in Syria.”

Given the youth-led protests rocking the region at the time, the conference’s name was ironically spot-on: “Arab Youth of Today, Leaders of Tomorrow.” The room brimmed with many who had pinned their hopes on Asma as an elegant, cultivated personification of a new Syria – a prosperous and open country that would follow a different path of reform than its autocratic and oppressive neighbors.

But just two days before Asma took the stage in her designer, navy-blue pantsuit, her kingdom cracked right under her black stilettos. And just months later, Vogue took down its profile of the “glamorous, young, and very chic” first lady. We were all dancing in a hall of a pastry-lined Titanic.

Soon, social media buzzed with videos and Facebook groups pointing to anti-government protests. News came from the southern city of Daraa about the arrest and torture of students who painted revolutionary slogans on a school wall.

Despite the buzz, Asma presented a titanium exterior: “The uprisings in other countries in the region are specific to those countries,” she explained when I asked her if Syria was addressing the same challenges at the core of neighboring countries’ protests. Those include a laundry list of societal and economic woes: unemployment, poverty, a widespread malaise and frustration especially among a vast youth population.

“We didn’t need an uprising to happen to realize we aren’t where we need to be,” she quipped. “We started reform years ago.”

But behind the hotel’s closed oak doors, there was disagreement, hushed and muted. And before anyone expressed it, he or she would take the battery out of their mobile phones so as to be sure the state-run mobile company couldn’t record them.

I met a young literary buff named Yazan who could barely keep a straight face while Asma was talking. Twenty-three years old, brilliant and charming, the world seemed to be his oyster, if only he were allowed to dip his toes in the water. Over a cigarette and stale crackers on one of the hotel’s winding terraces, he told me how watching the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt thrilled him. But that, ultimately, Syria was a kingdom of silence. He even compared it to North Korea but with better food. While he said that his country desperately needed a revolution, he didn’t think it would ever happen.

But a few days later, Yazan and I grew curious. We rented a car and went down to Daraa in an attempt to witness history unfolding. Just a mile from the city, burning tires – a sign of protest– blocked the roads. The driver immediately turned us around, quickly blaring a state-run radio station, a grinder mix of patriotic songs about “loyalty” and, of course, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. I attempted three other trips down to Daraa. Only once was I successful in getting in. And once I was there, I ran into a cement wall of silence from most residents of a town that was later to become a revolutionary crucible for one of the most closed countries in the world – a fabled hub of Syria’s Arab Spring story. “The walls have ears, my dear,” one shop owner told me, before advising me to leave. 

I’ll never forget how quiet the streets were at 9 p.m., usually high time for dining out and socializing with family and friends. The only lights that broke a blanket of black were spotlights at the Daraa National Museum. They pointed toward a mosaic painting of Assad, his stare cold and blank, his eyes ever watchful over the city.

When I published my dispatch from Syria five years ago, Yazan requested I withhold his full name for safety reasons.

And now five years on – after both of us have witnessed what the United Nations calls the worst humanitarian crisis in modern history – Yazan still requests anonymity from the relative safety of Germany. His family is still in Damascus. The stakes are simply too high.

“No one won or will ever win this revolution turned civil war,” Yasan told me last weekend. Over Facebook Messenger, we laughed and lamented that just five years ago, we were watching Asma glide through Damascus’s fanciest hotel, expertly twirling around civil society leaders and international analysts. Now she’s off the grid, save a rare propaganda photo or two of her meeting with mothers of wounded Syrian soldiers or members of Syria’s Special Olympics. It’s as if she finally realizes that all the blood on her husband’s hands has splattered their facade of normalcy.

“But even though there are no winners in Syria, there is definitely a loser,” Yazan told me last week. “The country itself lost.”

“I’ve actually made peace with the regime…but the question is now: how many pieces will the country be divided into and how will that happen?” Yazan asks, thinking out loud and tripping on his own thoughts. “Until then, death waves us good morning through the windows.”

Below is my dispatch from Syria – a time capsule from a moment when things could have gone differently. A time when analysts and a wide-range of Syrians told me a window of opportunity was still open for Assad to reform, for Syria to take a different path. Maybe we were all just naïve. I was 23, riding a revolutionary high of covering Egypt’s and Tunisia’s revolutions. Everything and anything seemed possible. But I never thought that five years later, I’d grow accustomed, if not numbed, to daily headlines of millions displaced. Hundreds of thousands dead. Dreams and lives scattered and lost.  

Since my first and last trip to Syria, I’ve traveled across the region in an attempt to document those dreams and lives. I’ve followed the mass exodus of Syrians from their homeland to Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia, Lebanon, Iraq and Germany. I’ve witnessed brutal carnage. I’ve witnessed utter resilience. Dreams refusing to shrink down to size and lives struggling to live out loud. These stories are just beginning.

Regrettably, I’ve lost touch with a handful of people who helped me while I was reporting on the ground in Syria. So many people – drivers, impromptu translators, restaurant owners and workers, students, and residents – were so generous in helping me better understand their beautiful, wonderful country. Their phone numbers are now disconnected, their social media accounts deactivated. I like to think I will find them how I left them: laughing, eating, dancing, and singing.

Bilal, a Syrian Kurdish cab driver who drove me to Daraa before the city was closed off by military tanks, made me and a fellow Fulbright fellow, Sarah Mousa, promise him that we would come back to Syria one year later to celebrate Newruz, the Kurdish New Year. He said he wanted to take us to the north – now an area largely fought between the Islamic State and Kurdish forces. He said he wanted to show us his village and his tiny farm. He wanted to show off his pomegranate trees and his daf, a drum-like percussion instrument.

Before he dropped me off at my hotel on my final night in Syria, he made me shake his hand and promise I’d be back.

“I promise,” I said, still shaken by the quiet but loud sights in Daraa – streets patrolled by Syrian armed forces, tanks parked in front of apartment buildings and hospitals, old women yelling at their grandchildren to come inside, a lone – still bouncing – red ball rolling down a dark alley.

I shook Bilal’s hand. Like Asma’s, his right hand was soft and sweaty.

“Good,” he said, wiping beads of sweat from his brow before he went home to his beautiful wife and two beautiful little girls. I had danced with them just days before in an open green field outside Damascus. They wore white lace stockings and black platinum loafers. Their thick onyx ringlets beamed in the sun as I twirled them around by their tiny pinky fingers.

“Then I will see you soon,” he said, before driving off. “We will celebrate the new year…we will dance and sing and eat… what more is there?”



The following story was published by CNN on March 30, 2011:

Yazan, 23, shuffles into a cafe in the Old City of Damascus. “Sorry I’m late,” he says, quickly ordering a Smirnoff and a toshka, a sandwich of meat and cheese. “But I was arguing with all my friends who’ve joined pro-Bashar [al-Assad] Facebook groups. They always tell me to be quiet. I’m the crazy old man in the corner that no one listens to.”

The University of Damascus student calls himself Jason Bourne, a play on the enigmatic David Webb character in the “Bourne” movie trilogy. He carries his data in his pocket on a USB stick, and when he talks with a friend on the phone about anything remotely political, they speak in Spanish.

I met Yazan and many other Syrians — insiders and opponents of the regime, as well as those who say they are conflicted and stuck in the middle — over a period of two weeks in the country. I left Damascus three days before President al-Assad’s speech to the nation — a speech that has left many of my contacts underwhelmed, deflated and anxious.

Yazan says he’s one of many Syrians who have internalized the paranoia that has been the hallmark of Syria’s Baathist regime. The vast network of Syria’s security agencies, the feared mukhabarat, have turned the state into a kingdom of silence, says Yazan, where George Orwell’s “1984” seems all too real.

Phone conversations and text messages are usually camouflaged by code. Journalists say they’re “busy studying” when they’re filing, most often anonymously. Western diplomats speak in hushed tones and refer to hot spots, like the southern city of Daraa — the nexus of protests over the past two weeks — as “the place.” Many even go so far as to remove the batteries from their mobile phones during conversations for fear that GPS tracking devices have been installed in their SIM cards. Despite the recent lifting of bans on Facebook and YouTube, many still use proxies to ensure some level of security online.

In the streets, photographs of al-Assad — Bashar in military regalia, Bashar with children, Bashar with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, Bashar surrounded by Clipart-produced hearts, flowers, and stars — hang in almost every shop and on every car window.

“His eyes are always on us. It’s like North Korea in the Middle East, except we have better food,” Yazan laughs.

But humor, he says, even with the prospect of al-Assad’s concessions to the opposition, is starting to lose its balm.

Human rights groups say two weeks of pro-democracy protests demanding political freedoms and an end to emergency rule and corruption have left more than 60 people dead. The turmoil started after the arrest of several teenagers who scrawled anti-government graffiti on a wall in Daraa, and has since spread.

“God willing, it’s the beginning of the end,” says a 28-year-old journalist from Daraa. He recently quit his job at a state newspaper because he was forced to “spread lies.”

“That day was the first day I said ‘no,’ ” he says. “We’ve been taught to fear all our lives … fear the government, fear wars, fear factions, but Daraa will hopefully be the country’s wake-up call to the real Bashar.”

A family affair

The Syrian government resigned Tuesday, and in a speech Wednesday to the Syrian parliament (a rubber-stamp body for the Baath Party’s omnipotence), al-Assad offered promises of reform and spoke of a “huge conspiracy” against Syria.

“What Bashar gives with his right hand today, he’ll gladly take with his left hand tomorrow while he’s still in power,” says Ammar Abdulhamid, a Syrian human rights activist who fled the country in 2005. “The moment people relax and drop their guard, that’s when they’ll strike again.”

When al-Assad inherited the presidency in 2000, there were expectations that the Western-trained ophthalmologist would initiate drastic change. People began to speak of the Damascus spring, but it never blossomed. Many still stand by the president, saying he inherited his father’s dysfunctional regime and must still fight a strident old guard. Others are less sympathetic.

“Can you really be a member of the new guard if you’ve been in power for 11 years?” says Nadim Houry, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Syrian leadership has promoted a false image of “we’re reformers under hard conditions.’ “

One Syrian deferred to the “Godfather” movie trilogy in a frustrated attempt to explain his country: “Compare his story to Michael Corleone’s, initially the good son,” he said. “If you want to understand anything in this country, realize this: Syria is run like family business.”

>One insider who deems himself a reformer says: “If you had asked me months ago, I’d say Bashar is fighting everyone he could fight, but post-Daraa, I’m not so sure. Even if he is fault-free and genuinely wants reform, at the end of the day, he’s sitting on a chair that has four legs.”

Those legs, critics say, support a regime not likely to cede power willingly. Maher al-Assad, the president’s younger brother and leader of the elite Republican Guard, has been the object of the protesters’ scorn — and fear. Asaf Shawkat, Bashar’s brother-in-law, is the army’s deputy chief of staff. Rami Makhlouf, Bashar’s cousin, is arguably the most powerful economic figure in Syria, controlling the mobile phone network SyriaTel.

A prominent businessman in Damascus who consults young entrepreneurs says people wanting to start a small business are fearful of figures like Makhlouf stifling their growth. “It could be something as small as their wanting to open a candy shop, but the corruption sets them back. We can’t ever advance with conditions as they are.”

Bashar’s “popularity”

Some Syrians have been willing to give al-Assad time to tackle the crisis, and they ask what alternative there is to the current regime. They point to the sectarian bloodshed in neighboring Iraq, and they fear that democracy would quickly give way to Islamic fundamentalism — a fear the government has ably exploited.

“Syria is the end of the line for the Arab revolution movement,” says Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. “I have a feeling Syrians will get up to the ledge, look over the cliff and see civil war and other things, and step back. The regime will be shaken up, but Bashar will survive.”

While the main entrance to Daraa has been surrounded by military camps, thousands of activists supporting al-Assad have paraded through Damascus, declaring “God, Syria and Bashar only.”

“No Israel, no America, we want Bashar,” 18-year-old Mohammed Rashad said. His friend held up the national flag, yelling “this is our Tahrir Square,” while a group of men stood on the roof of a black BMW, kissing life-size photos of the president.

In the nearby neighborhood of Yarmouk, the largest Palestinian community in Syria, 19-year-old Ibrahim works in a store surrounded by pictures of Che Guevara. “We are guests here, and Bashar has treated us like Syrians. We trust him.”

Kholoud Monsour, 36, pointed to a more complex reality: “I am not pro or anti; I want practical, applicable and gradual reforms and alternatives that can that grant democracy, freedom, pluralism and prosperity.”

“I call for an initiative for national dialogue that brings all parties together,” she says. “But the media doesn’t listen to moderates because we don’t have [an] appealing voice.”

Joshua Landis detects an air of disillusion. “The scales have fallen from the eyes of many Syrians about Bashar the reformer and his pretty wife, but they still feel like he’s the good king surrounded by the bad warriors,” he says.

Yazan tries to explain his own predicament. “I’m caught between two fires,” he says. “I respect Bashar in many ways, but I still feel like I’m in a prison.”

The fear barrier

While many desktops in Damascus internet cafes are set to photos of al-Assad with ubiquitous slogans like “We will not kneel [to the world] as long as you’re our president,” youths have gathered around cubicles the past week to watch graphic YouTube videos of the clashes in Daraa and sign on to Facebook to check updates on the “Syrian Revolution 2011” page.

Televisions in hotel lobbies and establishments are set to state TV, while staff members watch graphic footage from Daraa on their phones or mini-televisions. Expressions are exchanged, but words are rarely shared.

“Syria has consistently used psychological warfare to keep people tied down,” says Abdulhamid, the human rights activist who fled Syria. “The best way to control someone is to have them police themselves.”

A Syrian youth activist and blogger who wished to retract even his pen-name after Bashar’s speech says that the political space is finally opening up, noting that many Syrians have recently joined Twitter. “But there’s no unified and established opposition in Syria. If I weren’t alone, if there were more publicly talking and tweeting, then I’d reveal myself. But in the meantime, we’re gaining a foothold.”

Slouching toward reform

“There’s always a sense of the regime’s talking a good game of reform but not following up with concrete actions,” says Houry, the Human Rights Watch researcher.

Whether it’s Vogue Magazine’s feature on first lady Asma al-Assad in February, criticized by some as an insensitive “valentine” to the regime, or international conferences hosted under her patronage, Houry says the regime has launched a concerted public relations effort to show the world that the state is opening up.

Just one day before the first Friday of mass dissent in Syria, the Harvard Alumni Association hosted an “Arab Youth of Today” conference in the Four Seasons Hotel under Asma al-Assad’s patronage. She was introduced as a force that has “unleashed civil society in Syria.”

“The uprisings in other countries in the region are specific to those countries,” she explained to me. “We didn’t need an uprising to happen to realize we aren’t where we need to be. We started reform years ago.”

But with nongovernmental organizations facing severe restrictions and no human rights groups licensed in Syria, Houry says her platform of “civil society” is a farce.

One insider and business owner who says he has desperately tried to initiate dialogue with the president over the past couple of weeks explains: “You have to understand, he is a very institutional guy, not very creative. If you tell him to change something, he goes through a hundred channels. That’s why reforms have taken so long.”

Another initiative that is nongovernmental, but approved by the government like all establishments in Syria, is the Syrian Youth Parliament, whose colorful advertisements line the streets of downtown Daraa.

“More than before, young people need the youth parliament, and the government must accept the reality that we are in 2011, when young people should have their say,” says project director Melhem Mansour, labeling the parliament a “soft revolution” through which youths’ voices can be channeled.

Before President al-Assad’s speech and following Tuesday’s resignation of the government, one popular youth activist and blogger told me: “We’re getting a lot of candy right now, but things will get interesting when they [the regime] get stuck to a wall and can’t do what they say.”

After the speech, widely seen as a disappointment by activists and opposition figures, he sent me a message via Skype: “That wall. We just hit it. Take me to Egypt,” adding that “Syria just showed the Arab world that we’re 15 years behind everyone else. We’re now in denial.”

Yazan remains downbeat about the future.

“The fear barrier is still here,” he said softly, preferring to jot down some details on paper. “I’m still removing the battery from my phone, aren’t I? Syria has always been a complicated place. It’s our charm.”